Beyond “Free Speech” and Towards an Anti-Oppressive Future

7--Muhamad,-Taha,-Tasin-sws
Since my last blog post about the attacks in Paris, there have been a few comments asking about “the solutions” and “where we go from here.” I have also noticed how most of the articles and media coverage have been focused on discussions and debates about “free speech” and “freedom of expression.” Though not surprising, it is still very concerning when I read commentaries, including those written by Muslims in the west, that argue Muslims need to learn how to “respect other people’s views or opinions.”

These commentaries are not only inaccurate and play into “the clash of civilizations,” they distract us from a more important conversation we should be having. Mainstream media, as well as liberal political commentators (both non-Muslim and Muslim-identified individuals), have been locked in too much talk about “free speech” and debate over whether people should have the “right to be racist,” but there hasn’t been enough talk about how we move towards an anti-racist, anti-oppressive future. Little attention is given to the movements that are challenging and confronting white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

As I wrote before, the decontextualized and depoliticized narratives about the attacks in Paris reduce the issue to being about mere “cartoons” and results in the racist pathologizing of Muslims. When so-called “world leaders,” which included Benjamin Netanyahu, hypocritically marched in Paris, their demonstration had nothing to do with “free speech,” especially since many of these “leaders” have their own record of horrible violations against human rights and freedom of expression. The “unity march” was really about the west asserting its dominance and power over Muslims and other people of color. One of the ways this domination is expressed is through a narrative of the west being “under constant attack” from the “dark Other.”

Stacey Patton recently wrote about the dangerous prevalence of white supremacy, anti-black racism and violence, and the media’s silence whenever black communities and other communities of color are attacked. As she put it, #JeSuisCharlie is “the French version of #WhiteLivesMatter,” and the reaction from “world leaders,” Hollywood celebrities, and media was a reminder “that white lives matter, that white voices matter, and that white humanity is the only humanity worth protecting and respecting.” This reflects a major problem with conversations about “free speech”: these “rights” were never meant for people of color in white supremacist societies. We have seen countless examples of this, including the Patriot Act, the criminalization of students who speak out against Israel, the deportation of Muslims for criticizing U.S. support for Israel, or the bans against Gaza solidarity rallies in France. In fact, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist for drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon. This is by no means an endorsement of the cartoon or anti-Semitism, but just an example of the hypocrisy about “free speech.” When anti-Semitic cartoons are drawn, Charlie Hebdo treated it as “inciting racial hatred,” but when Muslims and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are mocked and demonized, it is considered “free speech.”

It is disturbing when I hear people, including some Muslims, say, “Yeah, people should have the right to draw those cartoons.” To those people, I simply ask, “Do you support Nazis for having the right to draw anti-Semitic cartoons or produce anti-Semitic films?” We all know where those propaganda cartoons and films led to, but why has it become difficult for politically conscious people to not see Charlie Hebdo as propaganda that fuels racism, Islamophobia, police brutality, and imperialist violence?

If we are seeking to work towards equity, towards a better world, where all people are treated equally and justly, where there is true liberation for all, then what place does allowing racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression have? If we think about the ongoing settler-colonialism and genocide against Indigenous Peoples, the police brutality and violence against black youth, the brutal wars against Muslims, the violence and unjust laws against undocumented immigrants and their families, do we want these oppressions to remain “norms” in the world? Are we ok with people using “free speech” as a cover for their Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and homophobia? Do we want to tolerate racist and sexist high school teachers or college professors who make students of color unsafe in classrooms? Are we ok with radio talk show hosts saying racist, misogynist things on the air without being held accountable for it? Is this the kind of society and world we want to live in?

I imagine that someone may view this post as advocating laws against demonizing Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m arguing that we go beyond laws and radically imagine a future where such demonization wouldn’t occur because of the acceptance and respect we have developed for each other. We sometimes see white celebrities having to apologize for the racist things they have said (and this only happens when their behavior reaches public attention), but there is a genuineness missing from most of these apologies. Most of the time, these apologies are superficial, empty, and done for the purpose of “saving face.” What if we lived in a society where people apologized, took responsibility, and held themselves accountable out of sincere love and concern for the people and/or communities they hurt with their words or actions?

History is filled with examples of western Christian societies fearing, ridiculing, and demonizing Prophet Muhammad. Since the advent of Islam, Muhammad became a target. Chapati Mystery recently featured a fantastic article that documents much of this history. Whether viewed as a corruption, an imposter, a heretic, a demon, sexually perverse, or even compared to an “African monster,” these depictions of the Prophet have a long history in the west and are ongoing. They go beyond sentiment and are connected to the oppressive laws and violence that target Muslims.

If we center our politics on abolishing oppression, then perhaps rather than ask if people should have the right to demonize the Prophet, we might be asking why is there a desire to demonize him (and Muslims in general)? What is the purpose? What “freedom” is being achieved when the freedoms of Muslims are violated on a daily basis? If you want to demonize the Prophet, first ask yourself what do you know about the Prophet and his life? Have you ever read about him? Have you ever read the impassioned poems that Muslims have dedicated to him over the centuries? Have you ever listened to the way Muslims sing out of praise and devotion for him? Have you ever spent time with Muslim families and listened to how they speak about him.

Could you imagine a cartoonist pulling a racist cartoon of the Prophet – not because of a law or to save face – but because he/she listened to the Muslim community and learned how harmful such images were to them? The Holy Qur’an acknowledges human diversity as a blessing and advocates for all communities – Muslim or non-Muslim – to build respectful relations with one another: “And among Allah’s signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. There truly are signs in this for those who know. […] O humankind, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (30:22; 49:13). As mentioned above, the “unity marches” had nothing to do with building positive relations with other human beings, but everything to do with valuing white lives and voices over people of color. To “know one another” would mean France and other “world leaders” taking responsibility and action against the racism and Islamophobia in French society. If we are truly seeking “freedom” for all people, then we need to abolish the systems of oppression that deny certain peoples their freedom. The dismantling of these systems also means unlearning the way we have been socialized, re-imagining ourselves, and deconstructing our understanding of what “freedom” and “free speech” really means to the State.

Will hate speech always exist? Maybe. But I believe we can work towards a future where racist and sexist hatred no longer comes from the powerful and real accountability is practiced. Instead of trying to integrate ourselves into conversations, debates, and spaces that are dictated by hypocritical laws and ideas about “free speech,” our focus and solidarity should be with the social justice movements against white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, setter-colonialism, and imperialism. Our solidarity should be with #BlackLivesMatter, with the Dream Defenders, with Idle No More and Indigenous activists, with the people and the resistance movements in Palestine and Kashmir, with victims and resistors against oppressive governments, with decolonial activists around the world.

Image credit: “Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy” by Sana Naveed
Translation: “We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all Worlds” (Qur’an 21:107)

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